There are radical changes taking place in the Schools Bill that the government is putting forward that, if passed, will not only effect home educators, but also dilute parental autonomy here in the UK. While I don’t think these changes will make us like China (where parents are not allowed to take under 18s to church or share the Gospel with them) I am concerned that they will lay the ground work for further challenges in the future.
But first, for those who are unfamiliar with the world of Elective Home Education (EHE), here are a few facts about the current situation. (If you are already familiar with home education, skip to the section on ‘What is changing?’ below.)
Why do parents choose to educate their children at home?
There are as many different reasons as there are home educating families! Some home educate by choice from birth others bring their children out of school for a short time. For some it is about raising their children with their value system, for others it is about the broad opportunities home educating provides. For many it is because the school system has let their child down and their children have been bullied or their SEND needs have not been adequately met.
What about socialization?
For many looking outside in, they wonder how a child will be socialized. Indeed this is probably one of the two main concerns for parents before they being educating at home (the second being, can I educate my child). For parents who are home educating these are not the pinch points. One parent said to me, ‘I don’t know why it’s called home education, we are hardly ever home!’ Between social meet ups, activities and time in the outdoors many families are extremely busy.
What does the law say?
Currently it is, according to UK law, the responsibility of parents to ensure that children have an education at school ‘or otherwise.’ In practical terms this means parents are responsible to register their child in a school or to educate them at home.
Parents do not have to register, follow the national curriculum, ask permission from the government or have specific qualifications. They do have to make sure that any education provided is full-time, suitable and effective.
So what are the proposed changes?
The heart of the plan is to require parents to register with local authorities. While on the face of it many will see this as a good thing (safeguarding children), I think it is not only unnecessary, but a dangerous precedent. The report is entitled strengthening home education, but it seems to be more about strengthening government influence over families.
My key concerns are given below. But first an overview of the proposed changes and my thoughts on it.[i]
Three of the main objectives appear to be: 1. Safeguarding children 2. Finding illegal schools 3. Providing support
1. Safeguarding - We are all keen for all children to be properly safeguarded. This is a laudable aim. But will a register be effective at safeguarding children. Having a child’s name on a database does not safeguard the child. This must mean that they plan to do more than put their name on a database. What are those methods and how do they compare in terms of predicted success in finding abuse and solving abuse? Many children at registered schools are known to social services and yet are still harmed, whilst there has never been a single case of an 'unknown to the authorities' case of a home educated child - i.e. the reporting system is currently 100% effective but the other side of known is broken – there are plenty of examples of children who have been harmed in school settings. Is it right to stretch resources further? EHE families have twice as many referrals to social services than children in school, but these referrals lead to around 1/5 of the number of Chid Protection Plans (CPPs) compared to school children. CPP rates in general population of EHE children is half that of school children in spite of the much higher rates of referrals to social services – that’s a lot of families put through immeasurable stress unnecessarily.[ii]
Children who are home educated are very visible to the community, even when unknown to the local authority EHE department.[iii] Even if a child is not known to the local authority, they are seen by their GP, community, extended family and many other people in the course of a week.
Ultimately if a parent chooses to abuse their child and keep them at home out of sight (a few cases of this from outside the UK hit the headlines around the world when it happens) these same parents will not register their children as home educated, they will keep them hidden. In other words even if there were cases, the production of a compulsory register would not safe guard these children.
A significant number of home educating parents have removed their children from school and chose to home educate because of safeguarding concerns in the school setting. If safeguarding were a true measure, should we also monitor all children under 5 and all children during school holidays? This is clearly impractical and in the case of EHE, according to the evidence, totally unnecessary.
2. Illegal Schools - Why will placing a duty on settings to give information about HE children help find schools that do not want to be found, that do not register as schools for reasons only they know, or that do not wish to be inspected for reasons such as they risk prosecution for safeguarding and safety breaches? Without a duty on parents to report all setting the child attends, which would be onerous to record for the parent and place a burden above providing a suitable education upon each individual family for each individual child; costly and time consuming for the Local Authority (LA) to investigate and check as to whether the child attends or not; which is onerous to the setting; then the use of a HE register is a very inefficient method of capturing illegal school data- which are by definition likely not to own up to existing.
3. Providing Support - There is nothing to stop LAs offering support, e.g. payment of exam fees without having to have a compulsory register. There is a high level of mistrust between many LAs and EHE families. This is shown by the consultation results on this proposed law where parents do not want to register, not because they have something to hide, but because they don’t trust what the LA will do next. At the moment, parents pay for all examination fees. I would suggest that it would be a good idea to make it a national duty for LAs to have to provide funding and exam centres if the desire is to genuinely support children in education. (There are a few LAs who have done this at times for some exams).
My key concerns:
In one article we cannot go in depth into the details of the law, but I can highlight my concerns.
1. Erosion of parental autonomy.
This is a shift from parental autonomy in education to state led education. Section 7 of the education act states that parents shall cause children to receive an efficient, full-time education suitable to their age aptitude and needs in school or otherwise. With compulsory registration either in school or EHE it becomes a duty on the LA rather than the parents. This is something that is a gravely concerning trend. I would suggest that generally parents are better at safeguarding and advocating for their children than state employees, but in the few families where this is not the case reporting processes appear to be working effectively in the EHE community. Indeed many parents have chosen to home educate explicitly for the purpose of safeguarding their children from unresolved bullying in schools.
2. Waste of resources.
Lots of extra resources will be needed for this with no obvious benefit as outlined above. Those resources could be better spent on helping social services manage the case load they already have preventing tragedies. Or resources could be used to support EHE families or increase the budget of CAMHs.
3. Potential for future abuse of power.
What next? Once all children are registered who is to say that they will not start to redefine what is a suitable education. For example, if my children hold traditional views on marriage or gender will our education suddenly be deemed unsuitable and hence children would be forced back into school. If they can do this for EHE families, will we be back to the state providing a named person scheme for every child? Parents will be obliged to not only provide their child's details and contacts but also any other detail that the local authority considers appropriate.
4. Lack of accountability.
There is currently no easy way for LAs to be held accountable if they overstep their limits. Would a new body be introduced to clamp down on rogue EHE officers and safeguard parents rights. With many clear examples of LAs overstepping their current limits if EHE families are not well-versed in the law this is a genuine concern. Many EHE families have had LAs attempting to do things which are currently outside of their legal remit. For example, monitoring families on a regular basis, turning up on the doorstep unannounced, declaring that home education is a safeguarding issue or insisting on seeing children’s work and photos of the children working speaking to the children themselves. (On a side note, seeing a piece of work gives no indication of progression or of how much help was required for the work to be completed.) The proposals make no mention of how LAs will be kept accountable.
5. Fix the actual problem.
EHE is on the rise as more parents realised over the pandemic how their children were not thriving in education. This proposed change in law focuses on imaginary children who may be hidden and abused, but who, if they do exist, will still not be found by this register. Instead we should focus on the thousands of actual children whom the system is failing. Support the families who are struggling, change the schools that are failing.
At first glance, to those unfamiliar with EHE, these proposals seem like a good idea, but on deeper investigation the implications of this law change should be of concern to all parents who value the role of family in society.
· These proposed changes to the laws will place a greater burden on parents who are making sacrifices to home educate and give greater powers to the government over the family unit.
· They will provide no tangible benefit in safeguarding children.
· They will hand power to Local Authorities (the proposed changes include a fast tracking of Statutary Attendance Orders removing safeguards of the court system).
_____________________________________ [i] Full details are here: https://committees.parliament.uk/work/620/home-education/publications/ [ii] https://www.home-education.org.uk/articles/article-safeguarding-myth.pdf [iii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354097124_How_societally_visible_and_engaged_are_the_children_of_home_educating_parents_who_access_online_home_education_support_groups